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Letter from Honduras

After the coup, a Canadian student visits a scene of resistance.

By Ashley Holly 1 Jul 2009 |

Ashley Holly is a Canadian researcher and graduate student in Honduras.

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Ousted Zelaya: 'I will return.'

On Tuesday in Honduras, two days after a military coup forced President Jose Manuel "Mel" Zelaya from office, I am headed down towards a rural village where protest is gathering strength.

The people in the car with me switch from one radio station to another, each announcer declaring that Tegucigalpa, the capital, is swamped with anti-Mel, pro-military demonstrations.

My colleague shakes his head, saying soldiers are standing outside of radio stations. The military is running the communications all over the country now, he sighs. Independent broadcasters, and Channel 8, which supports Mel, have been taken off the air.

As electricity flickers, the only way to know exactly what is going on is to be in the eye of the storm.

We arrive at the protest. My colleague tells me that it is probably best if I stay in the car. Foreign journalists were taken hostage yesterday and threatened with violence by the military government in the capital. I scout out the situation and decide it is safe to get a closer look.

About two hundred people wave their fists in the air chanting "The village, united, will never be defeated."

"This was a coup. This is not democracy!" yells one of the six men energizing the growing crowd from the stage. The people clap and cheer.

And then, women, children, elderly, families and complete strangers, all raise their hands in the air as they proudly sing the Honduran national anthem.

How did I, a Canadian student, get here? And more to the point, how did Honduras arrive at this point?

Return visitor

In 2007, I spent four months living in rural Honduras as a participant in a Canada World Youth, an international exchange program. I lived with a local family and volunteered at a local micro-credit development organization. During my experience in Honduras, I was exposed to many new things: culture, food, climate, mountains, poverty, privatization, exploitation, struggle, hope, activism and resistance.

In Honduras, 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty. It was a visit to one of the many Canadian owned mining operations in Honduras that led me back to this country today, where I am volunteering with a Honduran network of non-governmental organizations and investigating local resistance to Canadian mining companies as part of my Masters thesis at York University.

I am not yet comfortable taking a side on the issue of Sunday's coup, but simply wish to share a snapshot of what is happening here, given that the military government has blocked the anti-military news television channels and radio stations, is frequently cutting the electricity so as to limit online and telephone communications, and has been denying access to major highways, limiting mobilization.

Zelaya's referendum

President Zelaya was forced out of the country by the military for proposing a referendum vote on the Cuarta Urna, or changes to the current Honduran constitution.

Included in the proposed reform is the condition that Mel can run again for another electoral term.

Many people, however, are most concerned about other changes to this constitution of over 300 articles that was drafted decades ago more or less by the United States. Mel offered a referendum, which promised something like participatory democracy to a largely poor nation. The professors, the campesinos, the NGOs, the activists, at least the ones that I spoke with, were all voting yes to the Cuarta Urna. They said they were voting for change.

But the referendum was not supported by the courts, the legislature and the military, thus making it illegal. 
 Sunday afternoon, the Honduran National Congress read a letter supposedly written by Mel the previous week stepping down from the Presidency. Within hours, Roberto Micheletti, former head of the Congress, was declared the new President of Honduras.

Moments later, a CNN interview with Mel "live from Costa Rica" aired, in which Mel declared that he never wrote a letter of resignation.

But it was too late, Micheletti was in, and Mel was ousted.

What a startling reversal of political momentum. Many people had eagerly anticipated Sunday, the day to vote on the Cuarta Urna. If Obama could win the presidency of the United States, we can change this constitution, we can save Honduras, people were saying. Fists rose in the air.

Everyone knew the situation Sunday would be tense. I was told: You better stay in Santa Rosa this weekend, Ashley, just to be safe. A week prior to the vote, the organization I work with decided that staff could not be driving past 9 p.m. Police checkpoints dotted the country. My office held a four hour meeting to weigh the risks, and prepare. Perhaps the referendum will be cancelled. They may take your names down if you vote, or the results may be rigged.

People considered the possibilities. I heard no one suggest that a coup would happen. 

Yet, after Mel fired the military chief, and opposition exploded both within and outside of his own party, he was taken out of his house at gunpoint by masked militia, guided onto a plane and sent to San Jose.

Mel, and the thousands of supporters who took to the streets in Tegucigalpa, called this an act of terrorism, an illegal coup planned by the powerful economic elites in Honduras.

The military claim they are preserving democracy.

Yesterday, from exile in Nicaragua, Zelaya vowed to return to Honduras on Thursday to regain his presidency.

Post-coup: an early, uneasy quiet

On Sunday after news of the coup had broken, in a small city called Santa Rosa de Copan eight hours from the capital, all was quiet. Four militia guarded the central park. Everything was closed. Thanks to the oversensationalized morning CNN broadcast that warned the "situation escalates in Honduras", I feared that my office would be locked down. Not even close.

The streets were busy as usual. The office parking lot was full. Everyone met upstairs. We spent the first four hours of the morning, praying, discussing, sharing, crying, laughing, hoping for safety and stability in Honduras. A prolonged attempt at uniting in some institutional response to the coup failed. We all believe in the same God, many of us are from the same families, but we just cannot come together on the Cuarta Urna. This isn't even about the Cuarta Urna, one man yelled, it is about human rights. We have the right to be consulted. The people debated and discuss their versions of the coup. 

What bothers me, one man declared, is that in a few hours, the National Congress decided on a new president. Never are laws passed so quickly. This makes us suspicious. The military has ousted the president, under the premise that his will to present a vote to change the constitution was undemocratic. Then, they declared a new president and new head of the national congress without asking the people what they wanted. This is not democratic.

Another colleague speaks: The military have established a curfew. They are blocking the highways and the pro-Mel media. This is repression. This is not democratic. 

At my organization, a network of 15 non-governmental organizations, we argue that what happened is simply illegal. This is an unjust military coup, and Honduras must return to the democratic system by reinstituting Mel as the President.

Quenching thirst

Two days later, on Tuesday, here I am with my colleagues driving to witness the gathering of teachers, union members, villagers and members of various organizations who have gathered peacefully to force a highway blockade in Gracias Lempira.

We are bringing the Honduran flag, and seven hundred bags of water for the demonstrators. During our 20-minute drive to the demonstration, we successfully bypass Santa Rosa's two army battalions, the prison and a police check. 
 By 9 a.m., approximately one hundred pro-Zelaya activists have gathered at Gracias Lempira. Dressed in jeans, white t-shirts and red Cuarta Urna Si t-shirts, they declare the coup a violation of citizen rights and a shame for the people of Honduras. They have been forced to stage their own protests in places like this, outside of the city, due to major highway blockades by soldiers.

A small brigade of soldiers and police watch nearby. A protestor shakes hands with a police officer. These pro-Mel protestors are much more peaceful than the international and national media have been suggesting.

The only moment of intensity arises when journalists from the television channels attempt to document the event. The demonstrators run in a frenzy frantically waving their hands gesturing for the media to leave. They would rather have no media presence here than one that falsely represents their interests.

The journalists leave and the people gather in a meeting, pooling their resources to plan a trip to the capital tomorrow, where their voices will be heard by the people in power. 

The protestors do not want a military government. They do not want repression. They are calling for peace and democracy. As we drive off, I hear the chanting continue: "El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido."

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